Insects As Tools Of Torture

The ancient Persians were perhaps the earliest people to use insects as torture devices. The gruesome practice of subjecting a condemned man to "the boats" was given the technical term scaphism (based on the Greek skaphe, from which we get the word "skiff," meaning a small, flat-bottomed boat).1 The victim was initially force-fed milk and honey to induce severe diarrhea. Then the poor soul was stripped, lashed to a skiff (or hollowed out tree trunk) so that his head, hands, and feet protruded over the sides, smeared with honey, and set adrift on a stagnant pond or simply left in the sun. Wasps attracted to the honey delivered excruciating stings, but the coup de grâce came with the insects drawn to the feces accumulating in the boat. Flies would breed in the filth and then begin laying eggs in the victim's anus and increasingly gangrenous flesh. Although the misery could be prolonged by providing the victim with continuing allotments of milk and honey, the condemned would eventually succumb to septic shock associated with being infested with maggots.

Other Asiatic cultures employed insects for torture without such elaborate preparation. Centuries ago, Siberian tribes simply tied a condemned prisoner to a tree and let nature take its course. Forests in that part of the world support phenomenal densities of biting flies, and so mosquitoes (family Culicidae), black flies (family Simuliidae), biting midges, deer flies, and their kin ensured an excruciating ordeal until shock or dehydration provided a merciful ending. Recent studies from the Canadian arctic suggest that an unprotected person can receive as many as 9,000 bites per minute—a rate sufficient to drain half of the blood from a large man in about two hours.2 Similar punishments are reportedly meted out in modern China, although apparently not as a means of execution.3

The use of arthropods to inflict agony was not unique to the Old World. The Apache Indians of North America apparently used ants to ensure linger ing, painful death.4 Beyond the Hollywood westerns, there are several credible reports from the late 1800s of Apaches staking captives over anthills. The victims either had honey smeared on their eyes and lips or had their mouths held open with sharpened skewers. Typically, the tales came from white settlers who found dead bodies and surmised the details of their hellish final hours. However, in at least one case an Apache reported: "Old Eskimi[n]zin says he buried an American alive in the ground once and let the ants eat his head off." The extent to which Apaches used ants for torture is not clear, but Indian tactics probably became increasingly vicious in response to continuing abuse at the hands of the Spanish and Mexicans who practiced torture, albeit without insects.

In light of cultural bias, we might doubt some reports of Indian torture, but an anthropologist working for the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology provided a particularly compelling account of how one tribe used ants to inflict pain.5 While living with these Indians, Frank Hamilton Cushing earned his acceptance into an order of Zuni priests through a series of arduous trials, including the following: "Still fasting, bareheaded, and stripped nearly to the skin, I was set at sunrise on a large ant-hill of the red fire ants of the Southwest, so named because of their bites, and there all day long I had to sit, motionless, speechless, save to priests in reply to instructions."

If gruesome martyrdom is sufficient qualification for canonization, then Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly are surely the patron saints of insectan torture.6 These two Englishmen became pawns in the Great Game, a political chess match played out between two empires. The contest opened in 1837, when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne and Britain began to establish a strategic presence in India. The opening moves from the Russians were made by Tsar Nicholas Pavlovich I, who sought to expand his empire to the south. The British feared that the tsar had designs on India or would at least impede their own colonial plans by controlling Central Asia. The Great Game was on.

Both sides realized that the region that we now refer to as the "Stans" (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) was vital to their imperial schemes. Each monarch dispatched agents to convince the local rulers that benevolent occupation was necessary to keep out the British brutes or Russian reprobates, depending on who was doing the talking. The Russians were based in Orenburg, just north of the present-day border with Kazakhstan, and the British operated from northern India. If one drew a straight line from Orenburg to Delhi, the midpoint was the walled city of Bukhara—the place where Stoddart and Conolly would meet their fate.

Bukhara was viewed as a sinister place well before its entomological abominations came to light. No European had set foot in this forbidding and strategic stronghold for a hundred years. In a desolate landscape bloodied by marauding tribes, Bukhara was a cultural oasis endowed with palaces, mosques, and bazaars (see Figure 3.1). Such an important political and economic center could not long remain a mystery to the empires who sought control of Asia.

Russia sent a diplomatic mission to Bukhara in 1820, to recover their imprisoned countrymen and foster diplomatic ties. Britain countered by sending delegations in 1824 and 1832. British concerns were deepened after the Russians sent a second mission in 1835 and also began forging ties with Persian and Afghani rulers. In response, Sir John McNeill, the British ambassador to Persia, decided to send his own emissary to Bukhara to secure the release of Russian slaves and prisoners. There was no altruism involved; the British wanted to deny the Russians an excuse for invasion. In addition, the envoy was to offer his country's assistance in case of Russian invasion and assure the emir that he had nothing to fear from a British presence in his city.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart was chosen for the job. McNeill figured that Stoddart's service in Persia and Afghanistan provided the necessary

Figure 3.1. At the entrance to Bukhara, little has changed since the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart in December 1838. The Englishman was charged with ingratiating himself—and his nation's geopolitical interests—to the despotic emir in control of the strategic Central Asian city. Within hours of passing through the gates, Stoddart had offended the ruler and begun his terrifying journey into the infamous Bug Pit. (Photo courtesy of Galen Frysinger)

experience for dealing with an emir. The ambassador was tragically mistaken. As one of Stoddart's fellow officers remarked, "To attack or defend a fortress, no better man than Stoddart could be found; but for a diplomatic mission, requiring coolness and self-command, a man less adapted to the purpose could not readily have been met with." Nor did McNeill fully comprehend the nature of the emir, Nasrullah Bahadur-Khan. His official title—the Shadow of God Upon Earth—should have been a tip-off. Presumably, the moniker used by the emir's subjects was not known to the British ambassador. Behind closed doors, the citizens of Bukhara referred to their ruler as "the Butcher."

Nasrullah ascended the throne in 1826 through the expedient of murdering those who had prior claims, thus leapfrogging the corpses of his father and two older brothers. Concerned that turnabout might be fair play, he extended his homicidal streak to include his three younger brothers and several other relatives. An earlier British emissary described the extent of the emir's domination:

In order to exemplify in the best manner the tyranny of the Ameer of Bokhara, I need only mention the following facts: That every letter sent from Bokhara, and every letter arriving for their merchants and dignitaries, and every private note which the wife writes to her husband, or the husband to the wife, must first be opened and perused by the King of Bokhara. . . . Another act of tyranny committed by the Ameer is that boys are [required] to report to him every word which other boys talk in the streets even brother to brother at home, and servants in families are also obliged to write down for the King any conversation they hear between husband and wife, even in bed; and the people set over me were ordered to report to him what I might happen to speak in a dream.7

Stoddart himself, in a letter smuggled back to England in 1839, concisely described Nasrullah: "The Ameer is mad." The path that Stoddart took to arrive at this conclusion began on December 17, 1838, with his arrival in Bukhara. Upon riding into the walled city, Stoddart proceeded to the main square in front of the palace to present himself. He was not aware that riding there was forbidden, nor did he know that, when the emir rode up, a visiting horseman was expected to dismount. Instead, in accordance with British military tradition, he remained in the saddle and saluted the emir. Whereupon, according to one source, the emir "looked at him fixedly for some time, and then passed on without saying a word."8 An inauspicious start.

Stoddart gained an audience with the emir and handed the aggrieved ruler a letter of introduction. Upon seeing that the missive had not been signed by Queen Victoria herself, Nasrullah was deeply insulted—again. The diplomatic disaster was fully consummated when the emir was slipped a message by one of Stoddard's native servants. The poor Englishman was doubly betrayed; the letter was from the Emir of Herat, one of Stoddart's earlier acquaintances, who denounced the Brit as a dangerous spy. Nasrullah had a special place for such odious enemies. And that's how Charles Stoddart became the first westerner to experience the terror of the Bug Pit (see Figure 3.2).

The local people referred to the infamous pit as "Si(y)ah Cha," which meant "Black Well" or "Black Hole." It was located in the prison compound behind the emir's palace, so that he had ready access to the chamber of horrors. Twenty-one feet deep, covered with an iron grill and accessible only by a rope, the pit would have been an awful place even without the creatures lurking in the depths. Nasrullah seeded the pit with rats and reptiles, rather standard fare

Figure 3.2. The prison of Bukhara, where the emir maintained his entomological chamber of horrors, a 21-foot-deep pit covered with an iron grill and accessible only by a rope. The "Black Well," as the locals called it, would have been an awful place in its own right, but the brutal ruler stocked the pit with assassin bugs, the toxic saliva of which generated festering sores. Victims, according to the jailer, had "masses of their flesh . . . gnawed off their bones." (Photo courtesy of Galen Frysinger)

Figure 3.2. The prison of Bukhara, where the emir maintained his entomological chamber of horrors, a 21-foot-deep pit covered with an iron grill and accessible only by a rope. The "Black Well," as the locals called it, would have been an awful place in its own right, but the brutal ruler stocked the pit with assassin bugs, the toxic saliva of which generated festering sores. Victims, according to the jailer, had "masses of their flesh . . . gnawed off their bones." (Photo courtesy of Galen Frysinger)

for dungeons. The emir's pièce de résistance—the innovation for which he attained infamy—was the insects that he used to ensure a constant, torturous experience for his victims. The foulest of the emir's six-legged minions were the assassin bugs, although their eight-legged cousins, the sheep ticks (probably Dermacentor marginatus), added to the torment. When there were no unfortunate souls to feed to the cold-blooded menagerie, chunks of raw meat were dropped into the pit. The arthropods would not have found such fare to be particularly appealing, so we might suppose that the emir managed to find live victims on a regular basis.

Assassin bugs belong to the Reduviidae, a family of carnivorous insects (see Figure 3.3).' The proclivity of some species for cannibalism accounts for the common name of the group. These creatures range in size from 1/10 to nearly 2 inches and are endowed with a stout, curved beak for piercing their prey. Assassin bugs inject toxic saliva that paralyzes and kills other insects, along with enzymes that liquefy the innards of the prey, allowing the predator to suck it dry. A few assassin bugs feed on mammals, but the bite of these insects—also known as kissing bugs—is not usually painful. Stealth makes sense when securing a meal from a creature thousands of times larger than you. Most likely, the emir used species that do not normally bite humans, but when starved will feed on any animal tissue. The bite of these insects has been compared to being pierced with a hot needle, and the digestive enzymes that they inject cause suppurating sores.

Figure 3.3. An assassin bug preparing to taken a blood meal through human skin. These creatures were used to torture victims in the Bug Pit, developed by the Uzbek emir Nasrullah Bahadur-Khan. Although his official title was "the Shadow of God Upon Earth," behind closed doors his subjects called him "the Butcher." The species used by the emir to inflict agonizing pain on his enemies is not known; the pictured species is native to the Americas and transmits Chagas disease. (Photo by WHO/TDR/Stammers)

Covered in oozing ulcers, Stoddart was eventually released from Nasrullah's pit. The subsequent treatment of the British officer varied with the political climate. When the emir perceived that the British forces were weak, Stoddart was either imprisoned or, if Nasrullah was feeling particularly peeved, dumped back into the Bug Pit. During periods in which the British appeared to be a powerful presence in the region, the emir released Stoddart into the city to ponder his fate.

Stoddart was deeply devoted to serving God and country, but martyrdom was another matter. After being led to the edge of his own freshly dug grave and given two options, Stoddart chose to become Muslim rather than die. However, neither Stoddart nor Nasrullah could have guessed that this coerced conversion would soon bring another British officer to Bukhara.

In December 1839, the Russians sent 5,000 men, 22 cannon, and 10,000 camels on an expedition to Khiva, the capital of a key region to the northwest of Bukhara. The Russians, after losing half their men and thousands of camels to the cold, were forced to turn back. However, the British figured that such an audacious gambit by the Russians had to be countered.

Enter Captain Arthur Conolly of the Bengal Light Brigade in India, a man with a flair for adventure. Although the phrase "Great Game" was popularized in Rudyard Kipling's Kim, it was Conolly who coined this term to describe the British-Russian contest for control of the region. The captain had made a name for himself by ousting an Afghani monarch and installing a king friendlier to the British. So the British government sent Conolly into present-day Uzbekistan with orders to "establish . . . a correct impression of British policy and strength; reach amicable agreements with the rulers of Khiva and Kokand [before the Russians succeeded in this aim] . . . and, if circumstances permit, to return to Afghanistan by way of Bokhara."10 It was this last element that gave Conolly a personal reason for the mission. For the captain was not only courageous but also very religious. He had received word that Stoddart had converted to Islam, and Conolly felt duty-bound to save Stoddart's soul. But first, he'd have to rescue his countryman's body.

Conolly had cordial, if not particularly successful, meetings with Khans of Khiva and Kokand. Both rulers warned the British officer not to go to Bukhara, as they were on hostile terms with Nasrullah. But Conolly was undeterred. Moreover, while in Kokand, he received a letter from Stoddart, whose ability to interpret a diplomatic situation had not improved much despite his experiences. "The favor of the Ameer," wrote Stoddart, "is increased in these days towards me. I believe you will be treated well here."11 Stoddart had an incomprehensible lack of political judgment, but he can't be faulted for a shortage of optimism.

Conolly entered Bukhara on November 10, 1841. At first, Stoddart and Conolly were not treated badly, though Nasrullah doubted the latter's intentions. Things took a decided turn for the worse when the British suffered a terrible loss in Afghanistan and the monarch that Conolly had brought to power was overthrown. The emir surmised that the British were no longer a military threat. To add fuel to the fire, war broke out with Bukhara's neighbors, and Nasrullah blamed Conolly, who had just visited the emir's enemies, for instigating the conflict. The final straw for the emir was learning that the governor-general of India, rather than Queen Victoria herself, had answered his recent diplomatic communique. Nasrullah directed his rage at Stoddart and Conolly.

The emir would have consigned the two officers to the Bug Pit, but another political enemy had prior reservations. Undeterred, Nasrullah found a way to use insects to torment his British prisoners. In a letter dated April 6, 1842, Connolly wrote, "This is the hundred and seventh day of our confinement without change of clothes, but the weather having become warmer, we can do without the garments that most harbored the vermin we found so distressing." A message from Stoddart in late May was the last direct communication that the outside world received from the lice-ridden prisoners.

In the fall, members of a Russian diplomatic mission returned to St. Petersburg from Bukhara. They had tried to get the emir to release the British officers, but Nasrullah said he would not free the Brits until the Queen sent an answer to his letters. On October 1, 1842, Nasrullah was a sent a letter pleading for the release of the prisoners, but it was not from the Queen and went unanswered. Then in November, a former Persian servant of Conolly reported that both men had been publicly beheaded.

While Stoddart and Conolly were officially listed as dead, their fate was not accepted with only a servant's word as evidence. A group of hopeful friends put up £500 to support an expedition. Joseph Wolff, an Anglican priest, was commissioned to ascertain definitively the fate of the British officers. Wolff fully understood the emir's temperament, so he was well prepared to meet "the Butcher." Having been told that a visitor should bow three times in the presence of the emir while saying in Arabic, "Peace be to the King," Wolff bowed and recited the phrase repeatedly until Nasrullah finally laughed and told him to stop.

The priest was allowed to meet with the emir's commander of the artillery, who was also Stoddart and Conolly's jailer and privy to the complete story of the men's fate. Wolff learned that the Russian delegation's explicit concern for the emir's prisoners inadvertently doomed the two men. Nasrullah concluded that the Brits had become a serious, political liability. So, as soon as the Russians left, Stoddard and Conolly were thrown into the Bug Pit. For two horrific months they were slowly eaten alive, until, in the jailer's own words, "masses of their flesh had been gnawed off their bones."12 Finally, Nasrullah had the men taken from the pit and beheaded, righteously proclaiming that "strangling gives more pain, and the rascally Khan of Khiva strangles his people; and therefore, out of mercy, I command the heads of the evil-doers to be cut off with a common knife."

For thousands of years, across the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Africa, insects were co-opted into human warfare and torture. These early uses of insects were extrapolations of our most immediate and memorable personal entomological encounters—being bitten or stung. Functioning as living, guided missiles, the insect conscripts effectively delivered venom and pain to enemy targets. However, this capability only scratched the surface of insects' potential as agents of war. The realization of their darkest powers would dawn more slowly. But once we discovered insects' deadliest payloads, these creatures would utterly transform the history of warfare—and humanity.

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